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Interventions in just five nations could reform livestock’s planetary impact

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Interventions in just five nations could reform livestock’s planetary impact

It doesn't come down to reducing livestock numbers, but rather finding the sweet spots where climate mitigation and adaptation overlap.
July 14, 2023

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Channeling investment towards more sustainable livestock farming in just five countries—China, India, Brazil, Sudan, and Pakistan—could significantly dent livestock emissions globally. Simultaneously, those investments could make farmers more resilient to climate change.

Farming cattle, sheep, pigs and goats contributes about one-third of the agricultural emissions, and almost 6% of global emissions overall, mainly through animals’ methane production, and deforestation. 

Usually, the first response to this problem is to say that we need to reduce production—an option in countries where there are alternative sources of nutrition. But across lower- and middle-income countries (LMICs) about 1.3 billion people depend on cattle and other livestock for nutrition and livelihoods. In several places, livestock also have cultural associations that entrench them further in society. What’s more, livestocks are also threatened by the climate change they partially drive, which in turn threatens the people who depend on them for sustenance.

Looking at this complex picture, the researchers realized that in many regions livestock farming is something that needs to be proactively protected, rather than diminished. But if we want to align it with environmental targets, we need to make it more sustainable, and adaptable to the extremes of climate change—efforts that are currently chronically underfunded, they say.

They focused their analysis on 132 LMICs, looking at the vulnerability of livestock systems in each nation, as well as the contribution each made to global greenhouse gas emissions. They also considered what mitigation measures (to reduce livestock-associated emissions), and adaptation measures (to help livestock systems cope with climate change), could be achieved in each place.

 

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Notably, five key locations instantly rose to the top of the pile: India, China, Brazil, Sudan, Pakistan. In all of these countries, the livestock sectors showed encouraging potential for both mitigation and adaptation to deliver large benefits. Collectively, livestock systems in these countries are responsible for over half of the total emissions from the 132 focus countries, and yet they are also home to 35% of the global rural population most vulnerable to climate hazards. 

This means that focusing on these five places to tackle livestock emissions and climate adaptation could deliver big wins for the planet and people. The researchers describe these nations as “critical control points” to reduce the sector’s vulnerability and environmental impact. 

While those five nations showed the greatest potential, the remaining 127 nations analyzed in the study all showed room for improvement. The study also revealed clues on what actions to take by showing that in most cases, interventions that mitigate climate impacts actually entwine with those for adaptation, meaning both could be achieved with a single action. 

In fact, “adaptation and mitigation need to be looked at and invested in jointly, not separately,” says Julian Ramirez-Villegas, professor of Agricultural Climate Impacts and Adaptation at Wageningen University, and the study’s senior author.

What would some of those actions—and investment opportunities—look like in practice? A good example is silvopastoral systems where trees are planted on pasturelands, which both increases carbon storage on farmland and also shields livestock against the heat, increasing survival rates and improving farmers’ bottom lines. Another is for farmers to switch to local forage plants instead of relying on commercial feed. This not only reduces the climate impact of massive feed production worldwide, but the reliance on climate-resilient food breeds could also insulate farmers against climate shocks. Rotational grazing preserves soil carbon and fertility, which also generates more forage for grazing animals.

Other options include better management of manure, which is a major source of livestock emissions, and restoring former rangelands to nature, which would lock away more carbon but also improve water quality and other resources on which farmers depend for healthy livestock. Overall, restoration and improved land management could avoid 23.8 gigatonnes of carbon emissions each year, the study says.

The solutions are numerous and diverse—and that’s helpful, as not all adaptive and mitigating measure will work everywhere. For example, in livestock systems where animals roam far and wide, manure collection becomes impractical.

But the researchers hope that by pinpointing in their study both where, and what, measures will work, it shows countries how strategic investments can build a more sustainable livestock sector. 

“A future without the livestock sector is not likely and also not really desirable either. Too many livelihoods depend on the livestock sector especially in LMICs,” Ramirez-Villegas says. “What the livestock sector needs is investing in, to transform it.”

Ramirez-Villegas et. al. “Priority areas for investment in more sustainable and climate-resilient livestock systems.” Nature Sustainability. 2023.

Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

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